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Sunni tribes turn against jihadis

To fight foreign terrorists, US and Iraqi forces are looking to the Sunni Arab resistance.

By Charles LevinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2006


Sheikh Osama al-Jadaan, head of the influential Karabila tribe in Sunni Arab-dominated western Iraq, is more politician than traditional sheikh these days. He's given up his dishdasha and Arab headdress for a pinstripe suit with a silk handkerchief in his breast pocket.

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He's also turned away from supporting Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters in Iraq. "We realized that these foreign terrorists were hiding behind the veil of the noble Iraqi resistance," says Mr. Jadaan. "They claim to be striking at the US occupation, but the reality is they are killing innocent Iraqis in the markets, in mosques, in churches, and in our schools."

In Anbar Province, an insurgent hotbed that borders Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, US and Iraqi officials say they have a new ally against the Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists: local tribal leaders like Jadaan and home-grown Iraqi insurgents.

"The local insurgents have become part of the solution and not part of the problem," US Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters at a press conference last week.

Until recently, many of the Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar and local insurgent leaders collaborated with Islamic extremist groups whose funding and manpower is thought to come largely from abroad. They had a common goal: drive out the Americans.

But Mr. Zarqawi's indiscriminate killing of innocent Iraqis has alienated many of his erstwhile Iraqi allies. His shadowy militant group, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, is believed to have assassinated four prominent Anbar sheikhs. And in January when hundreds of Anbar men turned up at an Iraqi Army recruiting depot in Ramadi, the provincial capital, a suicide bomber killed 70 would-be soldiers.

Zarqawi's brutal methods have stirred controversy beyond Iraq, as well. When he declared an "all out war" on Shiites last September, his former mentor, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, publicly rebuked him and Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned him against alienating the Muslim masses.

But Zarqawi appears to have done just that. Last month, a poll of 1,150 Iraqis throughout the country, conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, the website World Public Opinion, and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, revealed that just 7 percent of Iraqis approve of attacks on Iraqi government security forces.The same poll, which over sampled Sunni Arabs, found that only 1 percent of Iraqis support attacks on Iraqi civilians.

Sunni Arabs vs. foreign fighters

"There is a change," says Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni Arab parliamentarian. "After these attacks, and after the elections, we find the people are eager to be rid of the terrorists."

Analysts say the participation of Sunni Arabs in the December elections, and the tripling of that sect's seats in parliament, has convinced local leaders like Jadaan that political participation can bear fruit, such as infrastructure, jobs, and an end to US military operations in their cities.

"We are caught in the middle between the terrorists coming to destroy us with their suicide belts, their TNT, and their car bombs, and the American Army that destroys our homes, takes our weapons, and doesn't allow us to defend ourselves against the terrorists," says Jadaan.

It was that frustration that first pushed Anbar's elders to take a stand against outside terror groups, which set up camp there and turned Anbar's highways into rat lines for foreign fighters coming in from Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

US and Iraqi forces launched a series of offensives throughout the province last year. Caught in the crossfire, Anbar's residents began looking for a way out.

"A sheikh from the Samarra tribe, which had suffered a lot from the military operations, came to see the minister of defense, and he said, 'Give me two weeks to get rid of the foreigners from our city,' " recalls Mohammed al-Askaree, an adviser to Iraq's Sunni Arab Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaymi. "The minister said, 'Take a month. If you get rid of the foreigners and the terrorists your city will avoid further problems.' "

Other tribal sheikhs followed suit. About three months ago, Mr. Dulaymi, intent on exploiting the rift between the tribes and the foreign insurgents, convened a series of meetings with Anbar's tribal sheikhs, religious leaders, and local elders. The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, attended some of the meetings.